Martin Newell’s Joy Of Essex: Most Modern poetry is utter rubbish. There, I’ve said it now

Sir John Betjeman: The last Poet Laureate worth his salt, says Martin Newell. Picture: ARCHANT

Sir John Betjeman: The last Poet Laureate worth his salt, says Martin Newell. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

Last Thursday was National Poetry Day. People were talking about it absorbed in books of it, tweeting, texting and emailing poetry to each other, writes Martin Newell.

The TV and radio schedules were jammed with poetry and everywhere, twinkly-eyed purveyors of verse went skipping into shops, offices and schools dispensing their clerihews, stanzas and quatrains.

National Poetry Day, as usual was a complete triumph.

None of this really happened, of course. The truth is that many people are impervious to poetry, or actively dislike it, believing that it is something thrust down their throats by cultural do-gooders wishing to turn us from our ignorant ways.

About two decades ago I was performing at an Essex literature festival. I’d been booked into a seaport cafe for an evening of rock poetry.


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Shortly after my performance began, a rowdy group of town yobs charged in. There was tension.

One of the lads yelled, “When does the ******* music start then?” From the stage I replied, “There’s no music tonight, Chief. We’re doing poetry.” There was a groan of disbelief. “Poetry?” I nodded. “Oh no,” they said disgustedly, thundering out as swiftly as they’d come in. That’s the power of poetry.

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I actually love poetry and have done ever since I first understood what it was. I have always believed that poetry should be something that mostly, though not always, rhymes.

I believe that poetry should be lucid, not hard to understand, possessing the ability to amuse, evoke, entertain, tell a story, record an event, or convey human feeling.

Poetry as I often say, is the brandy in literature’s cocktail cabinet. If it is very good, a little of it will do an awfully good job of soothing you or gladdening your heart. It is a salve on the spirit’s ills.

Much modern poetry, however, is waffle and does none of these things. That’s why it’s unpopular. There. I’ve said it.

Poetry is often pretentious, sometimes stridently so. It rarely rhymes, scans and frequently doesn’t even make sense.

Many poets nowadays use poetry as a sort of catwalk upon which to parade their personal or political angst. It is an embarrassment.

The last Poet Laureate worthy of his laurels was Sir John Betjeman, whose books famously, sold in hundreds of thousands.

The laureateship is an interesting job. Many poets, in my own experience, with egos the size of St Paul’s dome, would be in a terrible dilemma if the Laureateship were ever offered to them.

On one hand they would want the status and the platform. On the other, would be the abiding fear that they might have to commemorate in verse the passing of an old royal, the birth of a new one or the centenary of some military event, now pronounced morally declassé by their contemporaries.

Since subjects such as royalty and patriotism have long been unfashionable near the picnic hampers of the British literati, Poets Laureate of recent years must have found themselves in a bit of a fix.

They do nonetheless usually take the job, do they not? No doubt any qualms are soon soothed by trusted friends who coo that at least they will be “a safe pair of hands.”

What happens, though, if a much-loved old royal does shuffle off the coil?

Will some discreet emissary be dispatched from the Palace to say crisply in their ear, “Could we have you off your fainting couch for a day or so, please, Poet Laureate? Only, there’s a eulogy which urgently requires composing, possibly even declaiming later, if you’d be so good.”

Since I am unlikely ever to get the call, I lose little sleep over the matter. I do however, occasionally amuse myself with the thought of an incumbent Laureate being winkled out of the garret in this manner.

In truth, the Poet Laureate has no contractual duty to commemorate the emergence of a Princess’s new tooth, the anniversary of Dunkirk, nor the impending departure of The Few, whose numbers have now dwindled almost to single figures.

But somebody should be doing the job, shouldn’t they? Poetry in this country has become the fey, spoilt scion of its old self.

My colleague John Cooper Clarke once had a stage routine where exactly such a character would whine: “But Father, I care not for work and yet, I have no money for Champagne.” Delivered in his withering drawl, it was endlessly funny. Poetry, as George Orwell once observed, is the one art at which we British have been known to excel.

Yet, all the wrong people seem to be in charge of it and the teaching of it: from the grave-faced dons in their closed-shop departments to the happy-clappy poetry workshop brigade: As long as this situation prevails, we can hold as many National Poetry Days as we wish but those well-loved rhyming old chestnuts of long-demolished schoolrooms will remain dear to the public.

Almost everything else will languish unread and unrecited in the hushed corners of worthy bookshops. Well? Anyone?

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